Last week South Africa became the first country to sign a new international treaty aimed at combating tobacco smuggling.
Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, signed the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products at a ceremony held at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on Thursday. Eleven other countries including China, France, Panama, Turkey and Uruguay have also signed the treaty, which is now open for signature by other countries.
The aim of the treaty is to reduce tobacco smuggling worldwide. It promotes measures that governments can adopt to eliminate smuggling and encourages international co-operation between countries in identifying tobacco smuggling routes and trends, and in apprehending smugglers.
Tobacco smuggling is big business for both the tobacco manufacturers and criminal organisations. Once-secret industry documents reveal that the major tobacco companies have actively participated in smuggling worldwide. They have knowingly supplied tobacco products to criminals involved in smuggling.
Stopping smugglers from obtaining tobacco products by controlling the supply chain is an important aspect of the treaty. The treaty recommends that the supply chain be controlled through licensing of manufacturers; requiring them to verify the bona fides of their customers; tracking the movement of tobacco products across borders as well as tracing the origins of seized goods; better border controls and stronger penalties for smuggling.
The National Council Against Smoking (NCAS) commended the Minister for being the first to sign the treaty. "Reducing the illicit trade in tobacco is an important public health measure," said Dr Yussuf Saloojee, executive director of the NCAS. "Smuggling makes cigarettes cheaper and so increases sales. It encourages adults to keep smoking instead of quitting after tax increases, and makes tobacco affordable to youth. Higher tobacco sales in turn mean more sickness and death," he added.
"The level of cigarette smuggling in South Africa is highly over-estimated by the tobacco industry, as this creates pressure on the Treasury to keep excise taxes low. Nonetheless we do not need to combat smuggling and the way to do so is not by lowering taxes but by adopting the measures proposed by the protocol," Saloojee said.
At the signing ceremony, WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan said: "The protocol gives the world a unique legal instrument for countering and eventually eliminating a sophisticated international criminal activity that costs a lot, especially for health."
The new treaty is the first protocol to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The protocol will enter into force 90 days after the 40th government has ratified it.
The Protocol will help to protect people across the globe from the health risks of tobacco. In SA 44 000 are killed every year due to tobacco - that is three times as many as are killed in road accidents.